Connecting on Common Ground

IMG_20180129_090947_1-01I have connected with so many wonderful people in meaningful ways while I have been in Puerto Rico as a Student Attorney in University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. Karla Raímundi, our team’s staff attorney for the trip and Puerto Rican native, played an important role in facilitating these interactions and uncovering the common ground Buffalo and Puerto Rico share. These new relationships are not only the foundation for #UBLawResponds in the future, but were also vital to learning about Puerto Rican life.

Karla has always been sensitive to social justice and civil rights issues. So when she completed her Environmental Law LLM at Pace Law School, she knew immediately that she was going to dedicate her professional life to empowering Environmental Justice Communities. During this time, she oversaw four climate justice assessments, an urban forestry initiative, and litigation centered on the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. Lucky for me, she did a lot of this work in my native Hudson Valley. While I was coming of age and learning to love the natural environment, little did I know that I had such a strong advocate working to protect my home. Being from an Environmental Justice community herself, Karla’s obvious passion and moral imperative for climate justice inspired me to do more and go further with my time on the island.

Being in Puerto Rico and focusing on environmental resilience and sustainability, in some ways, feels like returning the favor. Through our humanitarian aid journeys across the island, I have been introduced to Puerto Rico’s stunning natural beauty. In the midst of hiking through the Cayey Mountains in Karla’s grandparents’ hometown, she I shared a moment where we realized our traded places. The teary-eyed smiles we shared validated our appreciation of each other and strengthened our connection.

Connecting through the significance of our work helped highlight the meaning of the other relationships we were building with our time on the island. When actions like giving somebody a towel or just simply listening to somebody willing to tell their story moves them to tears, it is a powerful emotional experience that will forever bind me to this island. The passion exhibited from the activists, students, professors, stakeholders, and officials has not only inspired me to strengthen my connection with Puerto Rico in the future, but has renewed my vigor to defend my own home.

Buffalo and Puerto Rico are more similar than many would believe. They are both plagued by similar issues; large out-migration, loss of manufacturing jobs, financial issues, environmental degradation, and large economic disparities. Buffalo’s “resurgence” lends itself in part to the ingenuity of grassroots organizers and innovative policymakers. Organizations like “People United for Sustainable Housing” in Buffalo, and “Casa Pueblo” in Puerto Rico, carry out similar missions, albeit in different ways, and could potentially share valuable lessons with each other. By building bridges between our two places, we could seize on our collective knowledge working on similar issues to help the other get stronger.

These shared experiences and new relationships will allow #UBLawResponds to grow into a meaningful long term project and to help facilitate that exchange of ideas. Already, the team is coming up with ways to help support those we met back on the island, including the possibility of a fundraiser to replace a hurricane damaged sports pavilion at an elementary school in Arroyo. However, to do so we need more than just innovative ideas. In order to effectively carry out our mission, we ask that you continue to support this project in any way you can. Together, we can strive for better.

From Old Roots to New Seeds: Exploring the historic and future role of agriculture in Puerto Rico

IMG_20180123_091444_2-01Puerto Rico’s relationship with agriculture is a good way to explore the island’s experience with colonialism. Understanding the changes in the agriculture sector alongside other historical events in Puerto Rico helped me to better understand some of the island’s current economic woes. However, there is a growing movement among the younger Puerto Rican generation that sees agriculture as a way to make the island more resilient and self-sufficient.

The Taíno natives were the first stewards of Puerto Rico’s natural landscape, and had an extensive agriculture system focusing on cassava, sweet potato, corn, and other root crops.[1] In order to provide an economic basis for continued colonization after the island’s gold reserves were depleted, Puerto Rico’s agriculture was commodified to put greater focus on sugar cane exports.[2] By the 19th century, Puerto Rico’s agriculture sector was comprised mainly of three crops; sugar cane, coffee, and tobacco. This was the beginning of the island’s reliance on imports for nutrition.

[3]After slavery ended, the United States seized control of Puerto Rico and modernization of the sugar cane and coffee industries was required to remain competitive and serve the U.S. markets. This modernization reduced the amount of producers in these industries[4], and concentrated the sector’s wealth into a few “Barons.”[5] [6] In addition to economic advances elsewhere, the Jones Act limited the amount of sugar that could be exported from Puerto Rico, thus the industry’s competitiveness.

Economic initiatives encouraged industrial development and further blunted agriculture’s importance. Under “Operation Bootstrap,” the combination of Federal and Commonwealth tax incentives fueled the transition to an industrial economy.[7] Subsequently, the agriculture sector shrank to less than 1% of the economy.[8] However, the federal incentives were phased out in 2006, and were a detriment to the Puerto Rican economy.[9]

Here in January 2018, and in the midst of the resulting 12+ year recession, many in Puerto Rico are looking to the agriculture sector as a possible way to help build economic resilience. Before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s food movement was in revival mode. While the island struggled with an ongoing debt crisis and shrinking population, farming was growing after a century of decline, resulting in more than 1,700 farms opening since 2013, and increasing agricultural jobs by 50%.[10] Because the Jones Act increases prices, Puerto Ricans pay a higher amount for food.In short, by growing more food on the island, Puerto Ricans can ensure the stability of their own food supply and fight policies that remove wealth from the island. There are many activists working to make this happen. Tara Rodríguez Besosa’s work has inspired me to examine this movement further, and see how policy could be used to support it. She was one of the speakers at this last year’s “Agrohack” – a conference that focuses on re-growing the agriculture sector in Puerto Rico through innovation. “Agriculture has the potential of becoming a key pillar of any country’s economy through innovation and technology.”[11]

#UBLawResponds will be learning more about many issues during this service learning trip in anticipation of continued work in February and beyond. I think finding a way to encourage the island’s agriculture renaissance may be a good way to build resilience. Check out this video interview of Rodríguez Besosa, where she explains the current movement and how it “defends” Puerto Rico. Her description of the movement echoes the changes in Cuba’s agriculture that have transformed that nation into one of the most sustainable, and could provide a framework for the commonwealth’s agricultural future.[12]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Serafím Méndez-Méndez et al., Puerto Rico Past and Present: An Encyclopedia 10 (2015).
[2] Jorge Duany, Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know 14 (2017).
[3] Méndez, supra 14.
[4] Duany, supra 51.
[5] Id., 17
[6] Four companies controlled 51% of sugar exports in 192.
[7] Méndez, supra 219.
[8] Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, Puerto Rico Fact Sheet (2017)
[9] Scott Greenberg & Gavin Ekins, Tax Foundation, Tax Policy Helped Create Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Crisis (2015)
[10] Kate Yoder, Hurricane Maria Crushed Puerto Rico Farms, This Activist Wants to Grow Resilience through Food, Grist, Nov. 1 2017.
[11] Agrohack, http://agrohackcon.com/ (last visited Jan. 20, 2018).
[12] As World Burns, Cuba Number 1 for Sustainable Development: WWF, Telesur, October 27, 2016.

SaveSave